The Theology of Star Trek

I.

“What is realised in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming.”

 II.

A classic element of Marxist historiography is the responsibility taken on by the historian to the liberative possibilities that have gone unrealized. Just as the Marxist revolutionary takes on a certain responsibility to discern the contingent possibilities for revolutionary action and class intervention—possibilities which will not realize themselves according to any historical necessity—the Marxist historian commits herself to discovering the latent potentiality according to which history might have been otherwise. In a sense, there is a sort of apocalypticism to Marxist history; from the horizon of the hoped-for revolution, these latent possibilities are transformed from inevitable false-starts to the real birth pangs of a new world to come. In the work of Walter Benjamin, this responsibility appears in the notion of redemption through repetition: the task of remembering history is not to describe the bare facts of the past, tracing in them the source of the present situation, but to unearth hidden possibilities and failed hopes which continue to demand realization.

This retroactive movement is theologically fecund. Slavoj Zizek frequently claims that the natural tense of apocalyptic historicity is the future anterior, taking the form ‘it will have been.’ The Hegelian move, he argues, is to “reintroduce the openness of the future into the past, to grasp what was in the process of becoming, to see the contingent process that generated [the] existing necessity.” These possibilities are specters that ‘haunt’ history—possibilities in search of actuality—from the point of view of the collective. This stance is what G.K. Chesterton called “thinking backward,” as an attempt to “render palpable this open moment of decision.” The collective—the gathered body—is to recognize the possibility and contingency that underlies the present order, its lack of necessity strictly correlative to the lack of a big Other to underwrite that necessity, by virtue of the spectral, failed hopes of the past.

The relation between authentic and ideological apocalypticism is visible in the gap that separates Lenin and Stalin. Lenin, for Zizek, represents the recognition of absolute contingency, and the concomitant need to act decisively, to take responsibility for the future that will arise if he does not act. Stalin, on the other hand, represents an order founded on its own historical necessity. The revolutionary, who lives fully within the death of the big Other, takes responsibility not only for the present, but for the failed hopes of the past.

III.

It is precisely in the mode of the sort of history-as-necessity that apocalyptic historiography refuses that most readings of the Star Trek franchise proceed, whether optimistically or pessimistically. Traditional leftist praise for Star Trek revolves around the commitment to the notion that any truly utopian future society involves a future without money, without a labor force divested from the surplus they generate, etc. The multiracial cast of the original is often cited with positive regard, as well as the anti-militarist bent, and the structuring of stories according to the demands of a group of people solving problems they encounter in the unknown, rather than the logic of a hero’s journey, or some other vaguely conservative story structure. The criticisms, of course, operate on largely the same level; Star Trek is rarely anti-capitalist enough, or anti-militarist enough or whatever; something happens in any given Star Trek episode or film, something that can, in the end, either be regarded as liberative or conservative; entertaining or boring.

I should confess at this point that I’m a huge sucker for almost-masterpieces. Something in me is constantly intrigued by films, books, and music that approach something truly intriguing, but don’t quite become adequate to it, that break down before they can arrive at the destination they promise. That I’m such a sucker for “almosts” probably explains my deep love for the film Blade Runner. And it is in this spirit of “almost” that, as a lifelong Star Trek fan, I have to confess that my favorite film has never been The Wrath of Khan, but the almost universally derided Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What’s more, with one notable exception, most of my favorite things about the film are precisely those things that are often cited against it. [1] For instance: it’s the only Star Trek film that’s actually about going out to meet some unknown horror together with open arms. The other films rely either on villainy or a sort of sci-fi MacGuffin whose nature is immaterial to the film to drive either an action film or an action-comedy. And I think the fact that the film plays so much of the time like a long, subdued waltz almost works with that; that it is a (for the time) high-budget visual effects movie with absolutely no explosions or bombast is really interesting to me. The film is driven into some really intriguing corners by the fact that it revolves around the Enterprise’s attempts to know an unknown entity that is simultaneously attempting to know the ship and her crew; Vger literally has to kill something to really understand it as a scientific object, and thus interprets the Enterprise’s scans as an attack. As poorly cast and executed as the character of Commander Decker is, I really like the idea that, at base, he’s right; there’s no reason Kirk should be in command except to satisfy his own ego; there’s no moment when Kirk gets to triumphantly demonstrate that he, by virtue of being a fiction character, is the “chosen one” who should always have his rightful place. There are all sorts of things like these that are almost happening in this film, but it’s important to note that for the most part they never do; the film circles around its own potential on all sides, illuminating a possible—but unrealized—moment, theme, film, etc. In The Motion Picture, Star Trek gets as close as it ever has to actualizing a certain happening that has lurked within it before and since. The specter of Star Trek hangs uniquely over this film.

IV.

According to most reviewers, however, the “best” Star Trek film is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And certainly, from the point of view of what actually occurs in the film, I’d probably agree. Where The Motion Picture is paced sluggishly, Khan wastes not a single moment of its runtime on redundant moments and lines. Where The Motion Picture reduces its characters to stoic, analytic problem-solvers who can barely be said to relate to one another, Khan both restores and surpasses the familial dynamic of the TV series, placing its narrative weight on the various sorts of families in which Kirk finds himself. There really is a lot to love about The Wrath of Khan, and it would be a mistake to say that the spectral possibility of Star Trek isn’t haunting this film; even as it leans on hero/villain conflict and reverses a lot of the prior film’s refusal to beatify Kirk as a creature of destiny, this is something different than, say, a Star Wars film; something else is at work, something whose play of appearance and disappearance gestures towards a different ghost.[2]

This ghost, though, is one that can only be missed, even in the most piously leftist analysis of The Wrath of Khan, as long as the primary attention is given to what appears, or what happens. It’s no accident that many of the worst moments of the franchise after Khan’s release consist of attempts to emulate or repeat Khan. Star Trek: Nemesis, in particular, is an attempt to repeat the tonal and structural content of that film, to universal and just dismay. The problem, here, is the same basic problem that haunts classical historicism: by enacting the point of narration and repetition from the horizon of what actually happens, what necessarily leads to the present, the ghost is disavowed, refused.

V.

I’ve begun to repeat a specific anecdote when asked about my feelings on the new, J.J. Abrams-helmed Star Trek films. Growing up watching zombie horror, the moment I could never comprehend was the moment when a character can’t bring themselves to shoot their undead loved one. “It’s not him! It’s not her!,” I want to shout. And yet, on opening night, I found myself at a showing of Star Trek Into Darkness. It is only in light of this particular spectrality of Star Trek that one can make sense of the unique betrayal that Star Trek Into Darkness represents. On the level of content—of what actually happens—STID appears to be at least as faithful an entry in the franchise as, say, Star Trek: First Contact. The timeline divergence enacted in the first film covers over almost all continuity quibbles, and those that remain (how phasers work in this new timeline, the ability of starships to submerge in water, etc) can only appear to be relatively minor. And yet, something is horribly amiss.

trek_nokia

Whatever could be wrong?

It’s probably not worthwhile to spend too long recounting the structural and thematic changes—a lot of this is pretty on-the-nose stuff. We find characters sipping labeled Budweiser beers, using Nokia phones, and engaged in heroic personal journeys to greatness in which they defeat ever-stronger foes. Star Trek has fucked up before; why is it these particular films in which we find not a distance or absence of Star Trek’s spectral promise, but films given over to another ghost entirely?

It’s hard to say, exactly. I know that the setup of this post probably promises an answer of some kind, but I’m not sure I have one. There’s simply very little in this iteration of the Star Trek franchise that doesn’t seem to be given over to exactly the sort of ghost that the ghost of Star Trek disrupts. That ghost seems to have very little to say in a film like Star Trek Into Darkness except “no.” It’s no coincidence, I think, that so much of this film is cribbed from The Wrath of Khan; in this case, what appears is an entire film given so wholly to what actually happened in Star Trek films of the past (in addition to the obvious TWOK nods, the film apes plot points from Deep Space NineStar Trek: Insurrection, and Star Trek: Nemesis, to name only a few) that the ghost is given up entirely.

VI.

There’s a connection to be drawn here between the sort of living in a tradition this post enacts with regard to Star Trek and the sort that the Christian or the Muslim or the theologian might engage, but this post is already too long, so draw it yourself.

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[1] That exception is, of course, the fact that the characters don’t really start interacting as characters until just about the last scene.

[2] “Commanding a starship is your first, best destiny. Anything else would be a waste of material.” Spock, to Kirk, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Gatsby and the Resiliency of American Empire

The Great Gatsby opened this week in its fourth film adaptation to very mixed, leaning toward negative reviews. The complaints range from the film being Baz Luhrman’s attempt to do a perfect Baz Luhrman impersonation to the awkwardness of the mash up between the early twenties and contemporary hip hop to the plodding pace of the plot and the poor attempt to mask that with a lot of flashing lights and CGI. There even seems to be a recurring complaint that the adaptation misses the point of the novel entirely, celebrating American empire and all the decadence of the Roaring Twenties rather than telling a story about its downfall.

One of the interesting things about the reviews is that they seem to claim exact opposite things about the film: Where one blasts the mashup, another praises it; where one says the film is shallow, another says it carries the message of the novel perfectly, and so on. What this tells me is that people (still) don’t really know what to make of this story. It’s one of those novels that everyone supposedly read in high school; people tend to like to use it as a touchtone for their own cultured-ness, a way of showing that they have some semblance of knowledge about literature. One of my brothers used to keep a copy in the glovebox of his car on the off chance a girl happened to open it.

I have many thoughts about the success of the film (or lack thereof), though this is not meant to be a review. I will say, however, that the aspect of the novel I’m going to discuss is brought out through what I think is the film’s greatest failure. As an adaptation, the film does an incredible job being faithful to the timeline and construction of the plot as well as the dialogue, with much of it taken word for word fromt the text of the novel. With regard to the major themes, my impression was that the film, in a sometimes heavy handed way, makes it a point to alert the viewer that, through the quintessentially modernist devices of lost love and failed attempts to recover the past, this is primarily a story about empire; namely that American empire is cold, destructive, and tragically resilient. But while the film attempts to beat that into the viewer with melodrama and over the top mise-en-scène, the novel sketches a much more careful, delicate picture which has made it notoriously difficult (some say impossible) to adapt.

This brings us to the film’s greatest failure which also happens to be, I think, the novel’s greatest trick: Nick Carraway. Both novel and film are told from Carraway’s first person perspective (though the film sometimes departs.) This is obviously a very deliberate choice for Fitzgerlad: Why write a novel so heavily dependent upon the revealing of another character’s backstory in the first person? At times, the devices utilized to convey those details of the past feel stilted, contrived, usually a telling of a telling. Furthermore, a story that is so tightly centered around deception and fantasy does not lend itself well to reliable first person narration, even if it isn’t the narrator intentionally lying, and indeed, many scholars have attempted to make the argument that Nick Carraway is in fact an unreliable narrator. The film plants that possibility in the viewer’s mind right from the beginning by having Nick tell the story of Gatsby from a sanitarium where he is being treated for severe anxiety and alcoholism–an unnecessary addition, to say the least. Nick Carraway is an unreliable narrator, but not in the sense that the story he has told is false in anyway.

The trick is that while being faithful to the story that he lived, he is not honest with the readers, and more importantly himself, about his participation in the empire that destroys Gatsby and George and Myrtle Wilson by the end of the novel.

The natural effect of first person narration is that the reader or viewer begin to identify with and trust the narrator. In fact one of the effectual goals of the novel is for us to begin to think that we are Nick Carraway–to be able to see ourselves sympathetically in his shoes. I’m not sure any film adaptation carries this as well as the novel, and it is why every adaptation has ultimately come up short, seeming not to capture the elusive essence of the story.

One of the most carefully crafted details about Carraway’s character is his own privilege. It’s well concealed and very easy to forget especially since he is so often juxtaposed between Gatsby and the Buchanans. However, the novel begins with Nick relating this advice from his father: ” ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ ” It is clear that he is not Tom Buchanan, but it is because he is not that we are able to identify with him. It adds an important layer of complexity to what would otherwise be a rather banal modernist theme, old versus new, which the film hits on quite strongly. Nick seems to be set outside of that somehow and gives the impression that he is above the games being played, telling the reader, “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

But it is Nick Carraway’s self-ascribed honesty that actually prevents us at first from being able to see his character completely; that is, his privilege has afforded him the opportunity to be passively drawn into a story which he could break himself from at any moment. In that sense, he is actually no different from the Buchanans, Jordan Baker, or even Meyer Wolfsheim, who all treat their own lives in the exact same way. He has romanticized Gatsby’s persona much in the same way as Daisy, referring to Gatsby’s misguided attempts to repeat the past and win Daisy back as his “incorruptible dream.” The famed last line of the novel emphasizes this as well: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past,” suggesting that the never ending attempt to recover a more real, more pure past is a noble endeavor. But it is a romantic endeavor, one that Nick and Daisy both have the ability to pursue and abandon at their leisure. Gatsby never has the option to break from his dream, and both the Wilsons’ attempts to do so end in their deaths. Nick pushes the blame for all the terrible events of the novel on to Tom and Daisy, telling us, “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

But I don’t think Nick’s hands are totally clean here. The tragedy Nick sees in his story is not that Gatsby, because of the uncontrollable circumstances of his life, was considered nothing and never had any chance in the face of real American empire. Rather, it’s that his farce was ruined, and he was not permitted to continue to live out the romanticism that Nick so admired.

In this way, Nick participates in the resiliency of American empire that is made explicit in his indictment of the Buchanans. And he has drawn the reader unwittingly into that participation. We revere Gatsby for all the wrong reasons and his story suggests that there are only two ways to really participate in the empire: be born into it or be a self-made criminal tycoon like Meyer Wolfsheim. [Aside: In the novel, after Gatsby’s death, Wolfsheim tells Nick that he made Gatsby what he was, that he gave Gatsby everything he had.] The rest of us, the Nick Carraways of the world, will hate that, we’ll actively despise it, go so far as to insult it and see ourselves as better than it [Nick says of his last encounter with Tom, “I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child.”] Yet we will have no problem romanticizing individual efforts to overcome it, even when they fail, if we are privileged like Nick to be able to do so. Our privilege affords us the pseudo-active ability to be outraged from our living rooms and behind our computer screens, bringing no real change to the problems that have outraged us. And American empire continues to thrive.